Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hamlet & Frankenstein: More Than Just Cool Names in Common


Hamlet & Frankenstein:
To Pity or Not to Pity? That is the Question

Prince Hamlet of Denmark and Dr. Victor Frankenstein of Switzerland each have one thing in common: they both have really cool names. However, beyond this outrageously obvious similarity, the correspondence of the two characters waxes much more complex. Each figure is faced with the all-time bummer of a situation and left to figure a way out. It goes without saying that Hamlet did not wish or desire that his father be killed. On the other hand, Frankenstein methodically probed, plotted, and fleshed out the commencement of his own dilemma. Trotting along side by side in many of their parallels (an unfortunate situation, being forced to solve the problem, etc.) Frankenstein and Hamlet’s characters distinctively break with each other in how the audience is meant to perceive them. Although Hamlet is criticized for being “indecisive,” Shakespeare gently coddles us to feel a kind of innate sympathy towards him. He thinks that he should seek revenge, but he’s not even sure of his own mental faculties. In Frankenstein’s case, however, we’re not incensed so much that he’s indecisive but rather that he’s very much decisive, in the sense that he opens up Pandora’s box almost without a second thought to the consequences and then he cowers in the irresponsible shadows of inaction instead of stopping the mushrooming destruction. And all this for the sake of keeping his “good name.” In short, we pity Hamlet and nearly loathe Frankenstein.
The surrounding characters seem, on the surface, to pity Hamlet, however, underneath this guise of friendship and loyalty, a number of them secretly plot his untimely death. Shortly after Hamlet runs Polonius through, Claudius remarks to the Queen that his “liberty is full of threats to all” and that “[Hamlet’s] providence [he and the queen] should have kept short, restrain’d and out of haunt, this mad young man: but so much was our love , we would not understand what was most fit” (IV, 1, 14-20). Thus Claudius pretends to truly and deeply pity his most unfortunate and bereaved nephew Hamlet. However, we, the audience, are fully aware of Claudius’s continual treachery, no matter what his pretty fa├žade to the queen may set forth be. As a case in point, the audience is shown, nearly from beginning, that Claudius murdered his brother in cold blood and without remorse. Additionally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pretend to honor Hamlet as their true “friend” and ally as they make off with him to England. Supposedly, they are concerned about his mental health and well being. However, we see right through this fabrication immediately after Claudius greedily implores England to execute Hamlet and rid him of his inevitable rebellion (IV, 3, 57-67). Ironically, the two “friends” of Hamlet are the ones who receive execution at the hands of the English authorities (V, 2, 351-355). Although never explicitly stated in the play, but given Hamlet’s vivid distrust and fiery disdain for these two former friends, it would not make reason stare to assume that Hamlet himself procured their diametric demise. It seems like there wasn’t a whole lot of pity to go around in Denmark.
Unlike Hamlet, however, Frankenstein’s family and friends genuinely pity him. As would appear to be the common service of the time, friends and family would sit next to the bedside of an ailing companion and nurse him through his feverish days of illness. Moreover, we are informed by Frankenstein himself that Clerval somewhat understood that he was mad. Or at least he suspected something. “When he observed me more attentively, he saw a wildness in my eyes for which he could not account, and my loud, unrestrained, heartless laughter frightened and astonished him” (46). Clearly, this is not an occasion where Frankenstein is coughing up blood on his bed sheets or vomiting into his bed pan, it’s an unequivocal case of madness. “My dear Victor . . . Do not laugh in that manner. How ill you are! What is the cause of all this?” (46) However, to contrast our noble Claudius and his willing but mindless minions, Clerval does, in fact, take pity on Frankenstein and nurses him back to health on more than one occasion. In addition to his close family and friends, Frankenstein is deeply pitied and succored even by completely random strangers. For example, we have the obvious case of the commiserate scientist and voyager, Robert Walton, who would naturally be expected to care for one of his one. Alternatively, we observe the peculiar situation of Frankenstein’s purported judge and moderator, Mr. Kirwin. Frankenstein is found washed up on the shore, swarthy, unkempt, and just in time for the people to accuse him of a murder which we know he did not commit. (Ironically enoug, of course, the victim turns out to be his good friend and nurse, the very Clerval). Although we might expect Kirwin to treat Frankenstein with the same scorn, revulsion, bile, and boiling contempt as his fellow Irish, he blows our socks off by nursing Frankenstein just like our ole’ chap Clerval. In fact, Kirwin steps it up a notch by affirming Frankenstein’s innocence, caring for him like a true Clerval, and even going to the unanticipated trouble of examining his personal letters and writing to his family to relate to them his unfortunate state of affairs (158). For a man who was nearly and virtually impaled on the sands of the not too distant shore, this is quite a tending. Apparently, there was a little bit more pity to go around in the era of Romantacism.
As stated at the outset, Frankenstein, unlike Hamlet, occasions his own misery and gloomy misfortune. This is where the sullen irony of each piece comes into play. As we have discussed previously, Hamlet is hardly pitied by his associates while Frankenstein is more or less enshrined by his ever-concerned fellows. Herein lies the rub. While Hamlet goes about racking his brains and tormenting himself about whether or not he should take action and revenge his father, he can never seem to make up his mind. Ironically, when he finally does get a little bravado in him, he ends up killing the wrong bloke. Blimey! Indeed, instead of killing the treacherous tyrant, Claudius, he kills his intrusive but not as important underling, Polonius. While Hamlet treats the gory murder with nonchalance and even sarcastically pointed humor (“A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king, and marry with his brother.”), we, as an audience, cannot help but pity him for his blinded rage and paradoxical failure when he finally musters up the determination to act (III, 4, 20-30). Hamlet is thus plunged into a spiraling blood bath over which he seems to have no control. In the end, as Hamlet attempts to culminate his stoic revenge, he dies just before he can extend his sword to exact it.
Once again, we juxtapose the fate of Frankenstein to that of Hamlet’s. As Hamlet puzzles and scratches his head about what to do, Frankenstein, on the other side of the coin, starts out running when he hits the pavement. From his childhood days, Victor is always obsessing over the great sciences and how he, the little boy wonder will change the world. Of course, it is no wonder at all that he attends a prestigious university, sticks his nose up at all of his superiors, and seeks, essentially, (as he had at a younger age) the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life (25). It is this self-infatuation, self-promotion, and unadulterated self-obsession, the reader’s knee-jerk reaction is to turn up her own nose at Frankenstein. He muddles in grubby graveyards and tinkers with the gears of life, why, to what end? Shelley alludes throughout the novel that Frankenstein is not engaged in these “enlightened” pursuits out of a purely altruistic humanism, but rather out of vanity and good old fashioned greed. Not necessarily greed of filthy lucre, but most certainly a rabid craving and foaming at the mouth for fame, glory, and in a historical sense, immortality. Such is Shelley’s portrait of our egotistical protagonist and throughout the unobtrusive letters and objective diary entries of her characters; this egotism seems to sneak by unnoticed, unseen, and even unquestioned. We, however, as omniscient readers (that is to say of all the facts presented in the novel), hold Frankenstein for his worth and would scoff to pity him for more than a split second. To help expound the unsavory taste in our mouth and justify our complete lack of pity, we need cite but a few examples. For an extended period of time, Frankenstein trembles that the monster will kill him on his wedding night and not his bride. As we read about his trembling fright, we can’t help but give him a swift back hand for his self-centered absorption. Need we recall the drawn-out days of Justine’s trial when Frankenstein refuses to spill the beans and instead sits by in the shadows, inept and unwilling to act? Or would it be enough to simply point the finger of accusation at Frankenstein’s thoughtlessness at the start of the whole ordeal? Throughout the span of the novel, Frankenstein concerns himself with one man: numero uno, himself. Is this an action worthy of our pity and our kind understanding?
While numerous readers wag their heads at Hamlet’s stationary wallow in the mire, in comparison to Frankenstein, he seems to deserve our utmost respect for eventually seeking to right a wrong which was born entirely independent of him, while the good Dr. Frankenstein had everything to do with the many travesties which he, in essence brought to life.

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